Election interview: My experience is a ‘superpower’ and even strong Remainers will back Labour on Brexit, says Harriet Harman

Katherine Johnston (05 December, 2019) Politics General Election 2019

'It is absolutely not the time for me to be bailing out'

31615Harriet Harman

Harriet Harman says experience is her superpower, believes being a “safe pair of hands” will keep her longstanding supporters, and claims her constituents are not confused over Labour’s Brexit stance.

“It is absolutely not the time for me to be bailing out,” she says, arguing constituents want a “known quantity whom you can rely on when everything else is changing.”

When asked why supporters should continue voting for her after 37 years in the job, she says: “It’s a time of real political turbulence.

“There’s going to be a very big change because of the number of people standing down, even leaving aside the number of people who might lose their seat.  We are going to have an influx of new people irrespective of the status of the parties after the election.

“In and amongst that you need people with accumulated experience in what is a very troubled time.

“There is always a lot of support in Camberwell and Peckham but people are really affirming their appreciation. I provide that reassurance. “

After her unsuccessful Speaker campaign, did she contemplate a career change or retirement?

“Definitely not.”

She dismisses claims her bid split her constituency members, some of whom said it would take her away from case work and were aghast it would leave them without a strong voice in parliament.

Those reports “didn’t at all reflect the views of constituents or members”.

“The Speaker’s role is very important especially if there is a hung parliament and in very turbulent times.

“I feel very strongly that the House has to continue to change.

“I put forward an unashamedly reformist agenda and it turns out the House of Commons doesn’t want that.

“It’s for the House to choose what sort of speaker they want. I’m sure Lindsay will do an excellent job and I will support him.”

Was it an opportunistic attack by Momentum? “It was completely immaterial”.

“A lot of the arguments I was making in the ‘80s have now been generally accepted and have stood the test of time.

“The people who were jeering at me saying childcare was nothing to do with politics, they were wrong.”

“The arguments have been accepted but the reality is yet to change.

Labour has now narrowed the gap with the Tories but polls say it isn’t on course to take power. Is she seeing a similar picture locally?

“There is such a strong sense from people in Camberwell and Peckham that they need a change in government, they don’t want to go on like this.

“Things are just getting harder. People say ‘you’ll be certain to get in’, ‘best of luck, not that you need it’, but they are also saying more strongly that they really hope Labour gets in power.”

Aren’t they confused about Brexit and considering the Lib Dems or Greens?

“The position that negotiates a better Leave deal but puts it back to the people with Remain on the ballot paper – and I would strongly campaign for Remain –  is probably the best option.

“People who are strongly Remain are saying that just cancelling Article 50 is not the way to do it.

“We have to get past the issue that we lost in the 2016 referendum.

“The argument that an election cancels a referendum well, it does and it doesn’t.

“This is a more grounded way of doing it. We have to make sure what happens next has legitimacy. It’s about taking people with you not just getting in and doing it.

But aren’t people confused when leader Jeremy Corbyn says he’s “neutral”? Committing to a second referendum with Remain on the ballot is a relatively new policy.

“At the time of the 2016 referendum some people didn’t know whether we were leave or remain and I was very concerned about that and that’s why I went out on the Remain bus because I was very worried that Labour didn’t have a clear Remain position – which we did. This time I think people do know that our position is to have another vote, that some of us would be arguing for Remain. I would campaign for Remain.

“I have not had people ask my policy on Brexit, but I have had people say we should have decided that sooner or that it should be stronger. I don’t think people aren’t clear about it.”

Is this a Brexit election?

“There are many other things people are very worried about. Our manifesto is changing the dreadful erosion and squeeze on public services and investment.”

For most people the election is about health, housing, standards of living and policing, she says, its “across the board” promised investment and “holistic approach”  that is appealing to them.

On the Tory’s approach: “It’s got to the point where it’s cruel. If you have a family with two children with autism, living in a too small council flat, one parent has given up work, their care package has been cut at a time of their needs growing- that’s cruel. I do what I can to help them but it’s cruel to even be faced with that.

“I see people facing up heroically to horrific odds and I feel complete admiration and frustration.”

Housing is a huge issue for her constituents. Since the last election four in ten people to contact her have done so about their accommodation, often due to overcrowding. Nearly ten per cent of them over lack of heating and hot water.

She says a campaign to take a derelict, caved-in church on Wells Way and restore it and create new housing association homes is one of the achievements of which she is most proud in her seat.

But will voters support Labour’s manifesto when the cost to the public purse is so high?

“I think it’s ambitious but I think people realise that just going on how we are is not okay, when we are in a deep hole you’ve got to take action to get out of it.

“The quest nationally is to build support for that manifesto. It is supported here and I will get elected.

“Getting that manifesto delivered is the quest elsewhere in the country.”

She says she has mainly stayed put in her own constituency for campaigning purposes – even though it’s billed as the safest Labour seat in London. Reading between the lines, one of the best known Labour faces seems to have decided not to go around the country, supporting a leader politically miles away from the Blairite project she was such a key part of.

How does she feel about the Greens saying a vote for them is a vote to push Labour to do better on climate change?

“I agree, on the climate emergency, they have had a catalytic effect in politics but there are still a lot of the radical policy agenda I have pushed that still hasn’t happened.

“We can’t abandon those. We have to make sure the fundamental issues like the health service are sorted out.”

Another aim in parliament is getting the law change needed to ban the ‘50 Shades of Grey’ defence in court used by men who said their partners died during consensual rough sex.

“Most of the issues that I take up either arrive through the constituency or reflect back into it.

“For example I’ve done a lot on violence against women and girls, but that’s not separate from my constituency.

“A lot of the arguments I was making in the ‘80s have now been generally accepted and have stood the test of time.

“The people who were jeering at me saying childcare was nothing to do with politics, they were wrong.

“The arguments have been accepted but the reality is yet to change.

“I’ve got the gratification that people agree but the frustration that now we still need to get on and flipping do it. People still can’t afford a nursery place.”

Another task will be helping new MPs be as successful as they can as soon as they enter the House.

“You can’t get up to speed for three years,” she explains.

“I’ve got a sixth sense of being able to absolutely and incredibly quickly work out what the nature of the problem is.

“Thirty years ago or something it might have taken me longer to work out what needs to be done and what is going on. It’s instant now. “Those years have given me an insight for new challenges and longstanding problems.

“Experience is superpower.”

 

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